After a year-long battle by CPRE Bedfordshire, Bedford Borough Council has been forced by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) to release documents crucial to the case to build 600 homes around the iconic Airship Sheds in Cardington.
A Freedom of Information complaint to the ICO by the countryside campaigners has led to the disclosure of documents that had previously been deemed secret by the Council and withheld from the public – including the Planning Committee Members making the decision to grant planning permission for the development.
Having reviewed the documents now available on the Borough Council’s website, CPRE Bedfordshire believes that had the general public and Planning Committee members been allowed access to scrutinise these key documents, the planning application might never have succeeded. What papers now available to the public reveal is very serious:
1. When the application was re-submitted in 2013, the Council claimed that it was supported by a new Viability Report and a new Independent Assessment. It has emerged that these documents in fact never existed! Instead, according to the Council’s legal officer, there were a series of discussions with the applicant and a letter to the Council from the Independent Assessor.
2. The letter from the Independent Assessor (dated 22 November 2013) which has now been made public, far from endorsing the application, continues to raise serious issues regarding the way in which the value of the Airship Shed was established by the applicant. The Assessor does no more than give the benefit of the doubt to the Council should it wish to accept changes made by the applicant to the issues raised in the first Viability Study.
The issue relates to a planning application which was submitted in 2012 by the owner of Cardington Airship Shed No.1 (which is Grade 2* listed) to build around 600 homes on land around the Airship Sheds. Part of the land was designated as “open countryside” in the Council’s Local Plan and should not have been built on.
At this time, the applicant had argued, using a Viability Study, that by being allowed to build the houses, reducing the number of affordable homes and obtaining a range of other reductions to planning obligations, they would then be able to repair Shed No.1 at an estimated cost of £10.9m.
At the time, CPRE Bedfordshire scrutinised the document and submitted representations to the Council which showed that the Viability Study was incorrect and that it would benefit the applicant to the tune of several £ms. These views were substantiated by the report of an Independent Assessor appointed by the Council which confirmed CPRE Bedfordshire’s claims and raised a number of other serious issues.
The planning application was then withdrawn and a year later re-submitted with, what the council said, was a revised Viability Assessment and a new Independent Assessment – this time both deemed to be secret and withheld from the general public and members of the Planning Committee. According to the Council, this was because they contained confidential commercial information.
When the application went to the Planning Committee in January 2014, CPRE Bedfordshire attended the meeting and advised Committee members of the secrecy issues.
A minority of members of the committee were so concerned that they took the previously unheard of step of requesting a vote of the Committee to return the application to Planning Officers for further consideration. The vote was lost and the application was approved by the majority of the Committee despite the very serious secrecy issues.
A CPRE Bedfordshire spokesperson said:
“CPRE Bedfordshire fights for an open and democratic planning system that the public can rely upon to work fairly in their interest.
“This is an extremely important issue and we are really pleased that the ICO has agreed with us that Bedford Borough Council should never have concealed key documents from the general public or indeed Planning Committee members in the first place.
“Those members of the Planning Committee that stood up against the secrecy issues surrounding this application need to be commended for their actions.
“We have met with the Chief Executive of Bedford Borough Council and asked that he should establish an external enquiry into all aspects of this case which CPRE Bedfordshire believes has resulted in the owner of the shed being given public funds, either directly or indirectly, which will almost entirely fund the £10.9m cost of refurbishment. In addition, we believe that the public and members of the Planning Committee have been seriously misled. He has refused our request.”
CPRE Bedfordshire will be writing to the Chair of the Planning Committee (Councillor Gerard) to ask for a meeting with her and Committee members in order that we can make them aware of the very serious issues raised by this case.
With the support of local MP Alistair Burt, CPRE Bedfordshire has now brought the case to the attention of the Local Government Ombudsman.
1. The link to the specific area in the Borough Council website with the released documents is as follows – http://www.publicaccess.bedford.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=LWK7SFCU03200 Documents can then be view by selecting the “documents” tab. The specific documents released are named:
a. 11 02685 V66 VIABILITY REPORT WITHDRAWN REPORT – this is the first viability report produced for the applicant by Turner Morum in July 2012 which was later withdrawn by the Council.
b. 11 02685 EIA VIABILITY – This is a series of documents from the Council’s Independent Assessor Jones Laing LaSalle including the first Independent Report commissioned by the Council dated October 2012 together with letters from them dated Nov 2013 which relate to the second resubmitted planning application – including the letter referred to in the Press Release, which can be found at the end of the document.
2. Applications 11/02686/EIA and 11/02685/EIA relate to a development of approx 600 homes to the Eastern and South Eastern Land Parcels around the Cardington Airship Sheds. They were granted planning permission by the Bedford Borough Planning Policy Committee on Monday 27th January 2014. The application was widely opposed by a number of bodies including English Heritage and Cardington Parish Council. Objections to it included; the siting of the houses doing significant harm to the setting of the Grade 2* sheds, the future operational use of the airship sheds and the development on land designated as “open countryside” – outside of the land identified for housing development in the recently adopted 2013 Bedford Borough Council Designations and Allocations Plan.
3. The development of the land is linked to the restoration of Shed No 1. In 2007, the Council committed to the release of land for residential development to fund the restoration of Shed No 1. The then owners gained planning permission to develop the Eastern Land Parcel (ELP) subject to an agreement that committed the developer to funding the full cost of repairs to the Shed No 1. In 2010 the land was sold to Fosburn Manufacturing, who advised the Council that more extensive development of land together with other support would be necessary to generate enough funds for the restoration of Shed No 1.
4. The Applicant’s Viability Assessment is central to the application because it sets out in some detail the financial case for the reduced contributions to the council in S106 planning obligations, affordable housing and land. In the 2012 application for development of this site, this Viability Assessment was in the public domain and able to be scrutinised, with inconsistencies found by CPRE Bedfordshire. The same application then returned in 2013. This time Bedford Borough Council said that there was a new Viability Assessment but that it would be kept secret following legal advice. At the Planning Committee meeting on 27th January 2014, following a CPRE Bedfordshire presentation concerning the secrecy of the Viability Assessment, some councillors tabled a motion to adjourn the decision of the planning application until the secrecy of the documents could be investigated. This was defeated. CPRE Bedfordshire put in a Freedom and Information request to see the legal advice, but was refused. Finally, CPRE Bedfordshire appealed to the Information Commissioners Office. This resulted in the ICO telling Bedford Borough Council that they should release the documents.
5. (i) Reduction in S106 contributions alone will cost the Council £2.5m – this figure was calculated by Council officers.
(ii) According to the applicant’s initial Viability Assessment, Gross Profit earned by the applicant on Affordable Housing is 6% against 20% for “normal” housing. Affordable housing will be reduced from 30% to 10% – a reduction of 120 affordable housing units.
(iii) CPRE Bedfordshire’s estimate of at least £10m includes financial gains to the developer from (i) and (ii) above plus a further substantial gain from the release of agricultural land for development.
6. Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) Bedfordshire is an independent local charity affiliated to the national CPRE organisation. We work for a better future for Bedfordshire’s countryside, one that everyone can value and enjoy. Our volunteers monitor and fight planning applications that pose a significant threat to the countryside, campaign on local rural issues and run the Living Countryside Awards that recognise and celebrate what is good about rural Bedfordshire.